Three months to the day after I first wrote about the N900, Nokia’s newest smartphone ended up on my desk. Since I’ve talked so much about it on Twitter (and since I had to lobby my wife aggressively to let me buy it), I think I owe the world my review. I get the feeling that this review will end up focusing on a lot of the negatives, but don’t misunderstand me: I really like this phone. The N900 is great phone with a lot of potential, but it is currently an early-adopter’s phone. I’m generally not one to play the early adopter game, but this time around I couldn’t help myself.
The N900 ships with several useful accessories. There’s of course the AC adapter, a microUSB cable (which also allows charging), a cleaning cloth, earphones, and TV out (RCA) cables. Pulling the back of the case off was a bit of a challenge. You just have to let it know who’s the boss. The expansion card slot is under the back cover, but you don’t need to remove the battery to insert or remove a card. Inserting the SIM card took more effort than it should have, as I proved incapable of understanding the directions. As it turns out, you have to slide the little metal case, flip it up, insert your card into that, flip the metal case back down, and slide it back into place. Since the SIM card rarely needs to be removed, this is probably a GoodThing™ (my old BlackBerry had a habit of letting the SIM card slide out of place if it fell too hard).
The earbuds come with several adapters that allow you to fit your ears. I must have strange ears because I could not get any of the three pairs to sit well. Another problem with the ear buds is the fact that the cables are of different length. The cable splits above the in-line microphone, as you would expect, but one side is considerably shorter than the other. I understand that the idea is to have the microphone off to one side, but the short side seems to short to allow for any head movement. It’s a nice try, but I think most people would be better off with a Bluetooth headset.
When it comes to watching videos, the N900’s screen is outstanding. The little kickstand on the back makes it easy to sit back and watch without having to hold it. Most of the user input comes from the screen (although there is a slide-out physical keyboard, more on that later), and I initially thought that the lack of multi-touch would be an issue, but the resistive screen seems to work pretty well. The spiral motion used to zoom in and out is pretty easy to get used to. My fingers don’t always seem to touch the place I intend them too, so the included stylus is nice. I’ve found that I use the stylus a lot more than I expected to, but it makes interaction much more precise.
Being an unlocked device, I had no problems connecting to AT&T once I had my SIM inserted. One big issue here is that AT&T does not operate 3G on any of the 4 bands the N900 supports, which means I’m stuck with Edge service. Edge has been pretty fast though, due in part to the solid hardware of the N900. I’ve considered switching to T-Mobile, but based on their coverage maps as of this writing, I’d have Edge most of the time anyway. My biggest gripe, though, is the fact that cellular data is disabled when making a telephone call. I know my carrier does not impose this limitation, so it must be the phone.
Wifi connections were easy to set up as well. I was even able to connect to my employer’s notoriously annoying wireless network. Wifi has been fast and stable for me. As you would expect, the N900 can be set to automatically connect to a wifi network instead of the cellular connection. However, for those of you who like more control, you can also set it so that it will only connect to networks when you explicitly tell it too. This is helpful aboard airplanes for example, or when you need to preserve battery life.
This is the bread-and-butter of the N900. The browser is fast and capable – including Flash 9 support. Like some other phones, it does not identify itself as “mobile”, meaning you get the full page when you visit a site. This is normally helpful, but there have been a few instances where I really like the mobile version of a site and would rather have that be the default. There is no Java plugin that ships with the phone, and I haven’t tried installing one yet. So far, only one site has been affected by the lack of Java.
The camera, and other multimedia goodness
Some reviewers have expressed disappointment with the camera, but I rather like it. The best feature is that the camera lens is behind a protective cover, which also launches and closes the camera application automatically. The built-in LED flash is fairly bright, but not so useful at a distance. The images are very nice for a phone, although it seems to take a while for them to process. The video tends to be a little choppy in the first few seconds, but otherwise the image and sound quality are quite reasonable. (See here for a sample, not safe for IU fans) There’s also a small camera on the front of the N900 which is presumably for video conferencing. However, there don’t appear to be any applications that make use of it at the moment.
The speakers have nice sound for their size (they actually sound considerably better than the speakers on my desk at work) and are loud enough that you can share your noise with others if you desire. If you’d rather, you can use the built-in FM transmitter. I used it on a drive back from my in-laws house and it worked fairly well, although it wasn’t always easy finding an unused space on the dial. For video sharing, the included RCA cables work very well. For added fun, hook up the RCA cables to the TV and point the camera (in video mode) at the screen.
There are two weak points when it comes to multimedia on the N900. The first is the lack of MMS, which doesn’t affect me much, but it might be a problem for some users. The other shortfall is the music player. It plays music, but doesn’t offer too many features. If all you want is for your songs to play, that’s fine, but people accustomed to more media-centric phones might be disappointed. However, the N900 does have several Internet radio stations pre-bookmarked, resulting in my spending several hours the first day listening to the BBC World Service.
This is part 1 of my review of the N900. Check back on Friday to see part 2. Part 2 includes “E-mail, calendar, contacts, and instant messaging”, “Other applications”, and “The phone.”